this is the beyond

Nicasio Reservoir, 10/21

On the drive to Point Reyes Station from San Francisco, after ten miles on Lucas Valley Road, you’ll curve around the Nicasio Reservoir, a shallow basin of glassy water with fingers that reach into the surrounding crevices of Marin's dry and grassy hills. You’ll be focused on making your way around each bend with enough speed and balance, and the scenery will move—appear and then disappear—as you move through it. Even so, you will inevitably be struck by how still the water is, a mirrored expanse upon which Jesus surely could have tread. The sky above, the wisps of fog contrails that crown the peaks below, are doubled—made more glorious—in the water, a reflection that seems to be a landscape unto itself, not just a cheapened reproduction of the thing above, but the expansion of an Edenic vision. The light makes it so. For reflections and shadows, which are transient, changing footprints, marked and then unmarked, may slip away from us—they are not things or objects to which we can give a proper name—, but they are, nevertheless, the vital signs of a prelapsarian light cast from up above. They give shape and sense to an otherwise formless darkness.

I have been noticing these reflections and shadows everywhere. As I glean and then tell the stories of people who are making objects and books and vessels to eat off of, I suppose I am merely shifting and shaping and refracting light to ensure that the reflection I put forth is as rich a thing as the person herself, and that the reflection might expose what the eye itself might have trouble seeing otherwise, a small, evanescent glimpse at the richness and the complexity of being human.

Lately, I have been going into strangers’ houses and asking them to tell me about their lives, which takes courage on my part as well as theirs—and I have been impressed by earnestness, openness, hospitality. Most of what I do is listen, which I like to do, and then I try to see, like not just look at what’s in front of me—the surfaces—but really see what is on the peripheries, and what little gems I might find if I just push aside a log, or brush off some sand—an obsidian arrowhead or a sand dollar or a piece of smooth glass tumbled over and over again in crashing waves.

It is a privilege to see the different textures of light, the multiplicity of hues and tones and colors, which you know is an infinite range if you’ve driven from the west coast to the east and seen the way light casts itself differently in every landscape. White looks different in every place you go. It is a privilege to be given the time and space to hear the voice of a person’s consciousness—this will never be dreary or boring for me, ever. To be in wonderment, to be in awe—I thank God for those things, for, through an exchange of words, finding myself in new terrains, exploring perspectives not owed to me, but gifted graciously.

In listening to other people's stories, and trying to know them more, I have a clearer sense of similarity and difference, both of which imply relations, or perhaps, a relationship. The profound realization that we are similar, or that we are different, is a recognition at the very least, that we are related in some way. To see similarity in a person is to know that this person is not irrelevant to you; to see difference, is to realize that you can't make generalizations about humanity as a whole—which you (and I) do not understand, beyond a few fundamental things, like our collective need for love and respect and kindness. Both similarity and difference require the space—and grace—of empathy; they demand acceptance that goes beyond acknowledgment. To know a person, of course, is to break through a surface, render the glass asunder, I suppose, and to know that impressions might be mere shadows or reflections—sometimes distorted, overexposed, twisted. The resonance of the ocean changes as you go down into its depths, as you pass through the sunlight zone, into the twilight zone, the midnight zone, and then finally, into the abyss. In those deepest of depths—I have not explored—life exists we might not know otherwise. Knowing those depths at all, requires that we admit we might not have known anything at all.

Most days, we shuffle through a long, dark tunnel from home to work to the places we know that are bounded in ways that make us feel safe and comfortable. It is hard to see beyond those walls, and it is easy to repeat those shuffling motions numbly, without any sense of obligation to an outside world, a wilderness beyond ourselves that we can’t fathom, or bear to try. But in the very little I know—in the very few years I’ve lived—I know that people gather a sense of meaning about their lives—a sense of resilient joy, which I mean to be a profound acceptance of their own existence—from moments in which they see beyond themselves. Do we not thirst for the transcendent? We want to see beyond tangible things, beyond what is merely physical. Despite our beliefs or unbeliefs, the seeking for the beyond, for the farther, for what lies outside of our humanly grasp, seems to be the most redeeming—and at times the most damning—quality of our consciousness. Like water refusing to be held, our understanding of what we cannot see seems to slip out from under us, again and again. Sometimes we can’t be bothered. Most of the time we are distracted by the shiny baubles that dangle around our heads like a child’s mobile toy, a temporary pacifier—but no maternal comfort.

Knowing this, I am relieved—elated, in fact—to live in this particular Bay Area landscape, in which so many different terrains and ecosystems—lakes, mountains, dry deserts, marshes, deep forests, grasslands—converge and make themselves known to us, if we will pay attention. Because there is no way you can, when you meet these mountains, and lakes, and oceans, ignore their grandeur, their infinity, their mystery, their glimpses of this truth that we are minute and small and that much else exists beyond our lives as we know it. They the rolling hills, they the bodies of water, they the great sequoias are mere synecdoches, parts of some greater whole. They are nature’s figures of speech that implore us to acknowledge the existence of secrets we will never know and crevices we will never explore. There are ways moving and being in the wild that we will never understand. The humility—the unknowingness—in the face of all that, is comforting, I think, breathlessly so; I am relieved to relinquish a need to know it all, to know how it all plays out.


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